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Birds treated shabbily in classic country music


by Harry Styron

In the 1950s and 1960s, the treatment of birds in country music took a strange turn. In such songs as “The Great Speckled Bird” and “Wings of a Dove,” birds were emissaries of God, treated with respect. But then things changed.

Here’s Hank Williams:

Hear that lonesome whippoorwill
He sounds too blue to cry

Hank Williams used images of birds to to evoke emotion, but he wasn’t consistent. Though the whippoorwill was too blue to cry, Hank would have us believe that the robin could weep, visibly:

Did you ever see a robin weep
When leaves begin to die
That means he’s lost the will to live
I’m so lonesome I could cry

Bob Wills, in “Faded Love” revealed a disturbing voyeuristic tendency, perhaps tinged with jealousy:

As I think of the past and all the pleasures we’ve had
As I watch the mating of the dove

When I hear that, I imagine the dove turning its little head and saying, “Patsy Cline! Can’t you give us a little privacy?” I wonder what my wife would say if I told her that when I watch doves mate I think of the past and the pleasures we’ve had. I don’t think she would respect me for watching doves mate. She would probably suggest a hobby or therapy. In this version by Elvis, the King, apparently sensing something wrong, changes the lyric to “I watched two doves making love,” but that doesn’t make it any better and his attempt to add syncopation falls flat also. In the video, a photo of Elvis and Frank Sinatra accompanies this line.

In some songs, birds are asked to do as they’re told merely for the entertainment of self-absorbed humans. Marvin Rainwater, Kitty Wells, Eddy Arnold, Porter Wagoner and Skeeter Davis and Brenda Lee were all over the radio when I was a kid with Rainwater’s “Gonna Find Me a Bluebird” :

Gonna find me a bluebird
Have him sing me a song.

This mocks the biblical responsibility of humans to have dominion over the birds of the air, which surely was not intended to apply to the birds of the airwaves. After the opening line that mentions the bluebird, who has the title role,  the bluebird is not mentioned again except when the first verse is repeated, indicating that humans are flighty, not bluebirds.

The worst treatment of a bird in country music comes from Little Jimmy Dickens’s biggest hit, May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose,” written by Neal Merritt. The names of his other hits are difficult to remember, probably because they don’t mention birds.

As country music was influenced by pop music in the late 1960s, hopes for better treatment of birds proved to be in vain. In Gene McClellan’s “Snowbird,” which was Anne Murray’s debut hit, the bird is first criticized, because he “sings the song he always sings,” then asked to perform a vague and impossible task without adequate equipment:

Spread your tiny wings and fly away,
And take the snow back with you where it came from on that day

Even out the of the country music mainstream, birds are not treated well, indicating that the problem wasn’t a product of Nashville tradition. But with the abstract lyrics of the following selection, it is difficult to be sure. Butch Hancock, a highly-regarded West Texas songwriter, is perhaps best known for his song comparing his lover to a bluebird, which, unlike the whippoorwill is not too blue to cry or to fly. Here’s “If You Were a Bluebird“:

If you were a bluebird, you’d be a sad one
I’d give you a true word but you’ve already had one
If you were a bluebird, you’d be crying
You’d be flying home

On the subject of avian privacy, the unhinged mind of Jack Blanchard crafted the chorus of “Tennessee Bird Walk” to conjure up rather unseemly images of birds, cruelly deprived of their wings and birdbaths in the first verse. And in the chorus we watch them on their own trail of tears:

Oh remember my darling
When spring is in the air
And the bald headed birds
Are whisp’ring ev’rywhere
You can see them walking
Southward in their dirty underwear
That’s the Tennessee bird walk

Country music might have formed a bond with bird lovers, who are huge in numbers. But in the era of classic country music, that opportunity seems to have been squandered. Somehow, we’re poorer for it.

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3 responses »

  1. Harry, I just read this story. I am continually fascinated with what is going on in your mind and how you can write about it opening up the reader’s mind to a subject that the reader (this reader) had never considered before.
    Pat (Mom)

    Reply
  2. I’m sure it’s troubling to you that I would go down this path. I wish I could explain it. I must have inherited from Dad.

    Reply
  3. Funny! Sometimes when I read certain lyrics I wonder if the songwriter was on drugs at the time. I love music but I can’t stand it if the lyrics don’t make sense or you can’t hear the lyrics for the ‘noise’ of the instruments covering up the vocalist. Give me a bird singing it’s heart out on a spring day anytime!

    Reply

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